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Last night at the gym they were out of large size towels.  Sitting there in the sauna with a wash cloth on my lap I overheard two young black women talking.  Between mumbles and whispers I could make out a few words here and there.
“Why would he want to go back there?  I would never go back to Detroit.”
“And the house he bought is right next to an abandoned house.”
“He’s crazy.  Why can’t he just let it go?”
As they continued talking I overheard them mentioning they grew up on a block close to where I live now.  I butted in and we exchanged tales of robberies on front porches, beautiful houses, family ties and dark street corners.  After they left the sauna that line kept ringing in my head.  “Why can’t he just let it go?”

I’ve met a lot of people, some of my own family members included, who were happy to walk away from Detroit.  To put it simply, these people have seen some shit.  It can be really demoralizing to live somewhere and continuously have the same experiences.  Some one’s dead on your lawn, dead on your street corner, hooked on crack or junk, all the businesses are closed, there’s no jobs nearby and the busses aren’t reliable, no one cares that your street lights aren’t on or that foreclosed unkempt properties are falling apart all around your house, inviting fires, gas leaks, squatters and scrappers.  I’m happy for every set of tired eyes, every heavy heart that makes it out of this situation to find a place to live their life the way they want to.  I’ve also met a lot of undeterred folks who see past some of these issues as local issues to the systematic problems they are, whose determination tears down empty houses, chases out drug dealers, builds farms, opens businesses and feeds their neighbors.  Some do it for political or social justice, and some do it out of pride for their roots.  They fight tirelessly for their blocks and communities with a healthy balance of hope and grit, they cultivate magic.  Both of these reactions to the daily traumas and trials of surviving are healthy and ok, and people should seek ways to live their life that provide them with the most safety and fulfillment that they desire.

A few years ago I was waiting for the bus at Woodward and Alexandrine.  It was cold and an older black gentleman and I struck up conversation.  He pointed at the empty looming apartment building across the street and said “I had my first daughter there.”  He started telling me about life in his eastside neighborhood before the rebellions of the ’60s.  How his blocks were filled with diversity and a rainbow of children all played together and everyone’s lawn was mowed and everyone had a job.  He was a young teenager when the riots hit.  He and h

is friends didn’t know what was going on but when they saw everything going crazy they wanted to join in on the fun, so they helped themselves to some beer from the liquor store.  When his daddy caught them, “Oh no,” he said, “uh oh….” and he laughed trailing off.  He said after the riots all the white people moved out and his neighborhood was half empty.  I asked him what he thought about all the young white people that were moving into Detroit now, a few generations removed from those bad memories, they are unafraid and excited.  “Good,” he said, “we need neighbors.”

The past few days, a craigslist post from Portland, OR has been floating around the internet.  It’s hilarious, enraging, idealistic and uninformed, it’s naïve, it’s a lot of things, and it’s been removed from craigslist.  Jalopnik’s Aaron Foley did a great article in response, below is the text shared of this now removed ad.

I’m in the process of rounding up a good group of fellow Michigan-Trail-ers for the long trek to the promised land. Detroit.
The plan is to round up a good group, (no number in mind yet), buy a property, or two or three, fix em up, farm everything to Eden, and give back to the community (ourselves included). Gentrification not included.
What you will need: Your brain. Your body. And most importantly, your Heart. It kinda keeps everything going.
You will not need to provide anything monetarily towards this project except for your own food and basic sleeping comfort.
The sky is not the limit. There is no limit. This is your chance to be a part of something great, something amazing, and something with the potential to be a complete failure. If you’re not ok with taking risks, putting yourself out there, and living in the most violent large city in the country, take some time to reevaluate your participation in this project.
Detroit will be Portland without large-scale gentrification. It will be revitalization that includes the people who are currently living there, the people worst affected by the arbitrary machinations of a system and way of life that does not care enough for people’s well-being. It’s time to take back our world for the people. It’s time. And the place is Detroit.

I’m not going to repeat everything Aaron Foley had to say about this, but I recommend giving it a read as it contains both great advice on surviving in Detroit as well as how to not sound ignorant.  I too, however, have a few words to the Manus (the letter was signed Manu) of the world, as well as the critics of the Manus and anyone else who might care to listen.

So idealist traveler, as Mr. Foley suggested, you may find survival here a little more difficult than imagined.  In addition to street smarts, winter layers, and a car or a good understanding of our barely functioning public transit system, there are some other things you are going to need here.  You are probably going to need to make some friends.  You are going to need to make an effort to understand and respect the history of this city and the current issues at play here.  I would suggest finding some local groups to get involved in when you arrive so that you may learn first-hand from others the ways of life here.

It may also be helpful to acquaint yourself with some true facts about Detroit.  Like for instance, though we do have high levels of crime and many dangerous neighborhoods, contrary to popular belief we are in fact NOT the most violent city in the country.  Sorry, that award goes to our cousin Flint, MI, though we do come in at number two.  Another fact that you may have missed: large scale gentrification is already in the works here as hot spot neighborhoods hike property taxes and big name investors swoop up buildings and blocks, pushing out longstanding businesses, organizations and residents while changing the entire dynamic of these areas.  It’s made painfully clear when tax dollars go towards the corporate opening of high end grocers and sports arenas, while resources for those in need remain scarce.  I have some words of advice for you, hopeful settler, or anyone else to whom gentrification and injustice is a concern to.  First, you need to understand the privilege afforded to you by your race, gender, class, lifestyle, and orientation.  You are going to have to do some research on what that means, as well as how privilege has affected things in this world, and in this city in particular.  You are going to need to work hard to befriend people outside of your privilege, both people with less and more.  You are going to have to be open minded and compassionate towards them, and you are going to have to be willing to be wrong sometimes, as well as willing to fight when you know you are right.  I implore you to work outside of your comfort zones to build solidarity across the board, and to call out injustice when you see it.  Check others on their privilege, call out racism, sexism, classism, able-ism, phobias based on orientation and gender identity.  Challenge the oppressive view points of the world.  Think critically, listen to other people, attend meetings and rallies.  I’m not going to instruct you in detail on this, as there is ample information out there already to help you to understand these concepts.

The sentiment that seems to leave a bad taste in most mouths, the part where you invited yourself to be the subject of discussion and attention, would have to be the moment where you said “Detroit will be Portland.”  You see, dear Manu, the people of this city are a very prideful lot.  Perhaps you aren’t familiar with our motto?  Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus; In English: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”.  Our fine phoenix city has had its share of ups and downs, as far back as a fire leveling the city in 1805, with many subsequent fires, both literal and metaphorical, leaving us to rise back up and build our better days.  Detroit has never had a need or desire to be anything but itself, and like the phoenix I believe we have the power and passion to make each incarnation more beautiful than the last and uniquely our own.  We have a rich and torrid history that must be understood and respected.  (And if that statement sounds redundant, I’m sorry but I cannot stress it enough).  However, and this opinion might be unpopular, I’m going to take this a little further.  Portland is no more Portland, than Detroit is Detroit, arbitrary lines on maps marking cities and states divvying up land for use by humans as we see fit.  The truth is there is no blank slate in this world where every corner is teeming with life.  Before it was Detroit it was the land of the Algonquian, and before that it was where the dinosaurs roamed.  The earth, down to the soil, mycelium and microbes is a living organism that we can choose to live symbiotically with or dominate and destroy.  There is nowhere you can step that isn’t going to impact something living, and nowhere that other footsteps (human or otherwise) have not been before.  There is no empty canvas for you to move your dreams onto; anywhere you live and breathe you are going to impact the life around you and the life that is to follow.

I find it rather endearing to hear Detroit called “The promised land.”  The “Paris of the West”, the home of Motown, the hope of good jobs on assembly lines and cars for everyone, the underground railroad’s last stop before freedom in Canada, civil rights, at many times Detroit has been a promise land for one dream or another.  And as a barefoot child of the Rainbow tribe living on a block with farmers, activists, and anarchists, I understand that one of the promise lands here is one of social and food justice.  We are a long standing urban garden capital with programs that started as early as 1893.

So to the idealistic settlers, I personally welcome you to Detroit, after all we need neighbors.  Real human neighbors with good intentions and respect for our roots instead of properties being bought up by corporate interests.  We need neighbors that work together, that care about community, and that are concerned about justice for all.  We need neighbors who will show up at the polls and at community work days, who will pay their taxes and fight in solidarity with their communities.  We need neighbors to buy homes of those who want out, to fill the homes of those who had to go, and to fight against the unjust foreclosure attempts to come.  Neighbors who will resist gentrification that only serves a privileged ruling class.  Of course you might need a slight attitude adjustment and a little education before you arrive.  If you can’t hack it, if you aren’t genuine, well, our city of fire has a way of christening you in its flames, and once you have been reduced to ashes you will know if this is where you really belong (and want to be) or not.

(Writer’s note: You may have noticed I use racial descriptors such as black and white, here and elsewhere in my blog.  I do this because, especially here in Detroit, it would be ignorant to pretend that someone’s presentation did not play a role in their experiences or the way they are perceived.  Thank you to Aaron Foley for responding quickly to my request to copy the ad from his article, and for responding with honest emotion to what feels like never ending and sometimes arrogant desires to utilize Detroit as a ‘blank canvas.’)

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11 thoughts on “Who belongs in Detroit? Or another response to “Calling all Pioneers- The Michigan Trail” the craigslist post from Portland, OR

  1. yes, the hottest artists are already here, where they can afford whole buildings as studios. and kudos to you for recognizing the need to mention race; it’s a real player here in Detroit, there is a breed of racism here that is like none other, and it colors all of our experiences, I chinchin your honesty.

    Woe the Portlandian who knows not of snow, sleet, and Michigan gray, pity the fool who is accustomed to functional public transit! The Algonquins called it “the place of water and food” , that also means lake effect snow and lots of non-vegan/veg food offerings for about half of the year, ( Portland is the only place I have ever seen a person begging specifically vegan) so no subsistence living here so much.

    I live in the DMZ between 8 & 9 Mile, I am an outlander. I have lived in several parts of the city, it is 140+ square miles, it’s a cultural mosaic, not a melting pot. So many bedroom communities are lumped in, when traveling, people who live fifty miles away will claim Detroit so “who is Detroit?” is an excellent question, thank you for posing it.

    C’mon dude, bankruptcy? The phoenix bit is effing killin’ me here,and there are already enough badasses off the grid to take it, something about occupying 🙂

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  2. i would love to sit down and have a conversation with you. maybe a coffee? anything. i read this and got warm inside. make me a new friend you make

    my names Paige. it was good reading your thoughts.

    facebook/paigekatelynn

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  3. I like to think we’d be friends, but this post is very off-putting to me. From someone who did move here without friends or connections, following a similar “promised land” pull, you sound a little quick to get on a Detroit-er-than-thou high horse. I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate questions to raise of this guy, Manu. I am saying that his mention of potential failure makes him undeserving of this particular attempt to set him straight. I also think your treatment of gentrification, while resonating with me, is not justified in this context (a retort to Manu’s post). I love this place. I don’t want it to become a near mirror of Portland or anywhere else. Thinking about the connections Detroiters have been willing to make with me in my first 14 months here is what gets me out of bed on a cold, grey day. But that Detroit pride you mentioned is a double-edged sword. It can be wounding to this city, and I wonder if it cuts just a little too far in the wrong direction in your piece. Here’s where I’m going: In spite of all that Detroit has right here, it could stand for a little more cultural exchange with other locales. Why not speak to someone like Manu recognizing that he might bring something to the table, instead of getting so excited about enumerating all the things he needs to check at the door (some of which he may or may not even possess)? It seems likely that this diatribe has little to do with Manu, and more to do with folks you’ve seen in the city who are “doing it wrong”. I think I’d agree with your definition of “doing it wrong”, so I encourage you to aim your words at those people and maybe offer it to Manu simply as a warning of what can happen to privileged people when they move here. Spare Manu a little, a guy who seems to have a genuine interest in becoming a part of community in Detroit.

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    • Kirkdavid

      I think you missed a bit of the point. No matter where you go or live in Detroit you are in a dangerous place. You can come here with intentions of inexpensive land with few regulations on how you use it (for now) but one may find that staying safely on that land can be a challenge. Willfully becoming a minority in an impoverished community made up of a majority that does not have any basis on which to relate to you, no understanding of your culture, your level of participation in the majority culture; quite frankly makes you a target. Not every target gets hit but only a fool would not be aware of the reality that has grown here over the past 60 years.

      I was alive for everyone of those years and my memory may not be institutional as say…the auto industries. Yet at the same time I did not do enough hallucinogenic’ as a kid to make me forget the 180 degree shift from where we were to where we are.

      You come here and say it’s the people you have met in Detroit that make it worth getting out of bed. Cool. My guess is you either moved somewhere close to the University/Medical district or directly downtown in the Disney by the river. That entire area encompasses about 1/10 of the city. How far outside of that cocoon do you go?

      The author of this essay came here from suburbia, a racist suburbia, into an equally racist city and made a home. I know she did it by her wits, will power and personality. She did not until recently by a home here, outside of the serviced areas of the city because she finally got it. Understood that cultures of difference does not have to mean cultures of separation.

      I for one think you made quite a few assumptions as to what peaches here was saying. If I never rode a horse would the first place you take me with no warning be down a steep box canyon wall?

      It’s nice, I am glad you survived a year+ here and added to not only the tax base but to the melding of the old with the new. Now if you haven’t done so yet buy a house and lay down a root and pay some taxes. Then you will be truly helping the place that you say is 3/10ths shy of your Mecca.

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      • You’re right. I live on the edge of Woodbridge. Guilty of that. I also bike to my job at King High School and occasionally study afterward in the Elmwood Park library branch, spent most of my first year here biking up to Fenkell & Wyoming every day to coach basketball, hang out in Poletown, and go on runs around NW Goldberg and Core City – often at night. I go weeks without visiting “Disney by the river”. I only even know one person who lives downtown. I don’t want to paint myself as something special because I’m not, but I do feel the need to reply when such assumptions are being made about me. And I think that if somebody not so special as me can figure out how to ride a horse down a steep canyon wall, then let’s not discourage others from doing the same.

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    • Thanks so much for taking the time to read my article and type out a well thought out response to continue the conversation. I agree that our Detroit pride can be a double edged sword, which is why I was moved to make this response after reading the response on Jalopnik. I’m happy it still comes across as critical though. I’m not nessicarily directly addressing Manu, but more so using his post as a way to explore some concepts that are often on my mind. I’m happy that you found the promised land you came looking for and that Detroit has been treating you well. I know that many people are moving here, but I still get scared when I see the corporate land grabs happening. We need neighbors with hearts, not corporations focused on profits. There was an awesome blog post in response to Detroit’s response to the Anthony Bourdain special that I wish I could find and link you to here. It talked about how everyone hates what he did, but they would have hated him if he went to Eastern Market, and that we should be a little less trigger happy with our critque of everything. I hope Manu continues with his dream. If he needs any help he is welcome to hit me up.

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      • Thanks for responding to my post. I’m sorry that my comment could have been taken as offensive to you (as evidenced by your friend’s reaction), but I’m glad you seem to have taken it the right way. I just wanted to add a slightly different perspective in case Manu (or someone similar) were to read this. I like that you feel a responsibility to use your voice for mitigation of unjust urban renewal. I feel that way, too. I feel like we have the right to scare certain power practices away from Detroit, but I don’t feel anyone has the right to scare people away from any place.

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  4. kirkdavid

    You mistake offense for a feeling that you may be a bit naive. I am glad you experienced my old neighborhood, the exact area I was born and grew up in and stayed in until ’89, before you moved into the “north of MidTown Area” to go to work at the Eastern edge of Disney by the River.

    Personally I am glad you’re here, the people of my parents and my generation fucked Detroit up into such a knot only them like yourself and Peaches here will be able to untie it. Unfortunately there is going to be a cost paid by someone.

    Little history. After the ’67 rebellion (not a riot like ’43) Henry Ford II chaired a Rebuild Detroit committee that sat in what was still a very lively and vibrant downtown with close to 100% office space filled, an operating Hudson’s store, and an actual destination place for the residents to go to. The Fox Theater was still just that at the time a movie theater, there was no Hart Plaza and Cobo Hall was still fairly new. The fires took out a relatively minor area of the city not much further north up 12th (Rosa Parks) from where you live now. The population in ’68 was well above 1.3 million but moving out. Fords committee decided that while old and not too shabby they would do some clean up downtown, build what is now GM’s world HQ and then radiate outwards from there to the rest of the city.

    What they did not count on was two things; the city’s first Black Mayor and the mass movement of people from ’73 forward out and the movement away from Detroit city proper and Michigan as a whole a mass exodus of blue collar middle class wages by the auto industry. First they consolidated in other states then went overseas with those jobs. At one time Detroit provided 70% of the states tax revenue.

    Had those two things not happened there would not be two Detroit’ today. Now it’s been near 50 years and the pace of Fords vision has moved about 1 mile per decade up Woodward and roughly 1 mile East of Woodward and now the area West of Woodward is getting the long overdue makeover (gentrification of existing structures). Out as far as Grand Blvd. If you want to be generous in the estimate. That may be roughly 15 sq miles in 50 years. The city is 140 sq miles.

    Now here is the aggravating thing for one, like myself, who lives so far from Downtown, I paid for it all, my neighbors and I. all of us who pay rather large amounts of property taxes pay for the bond debts that over that 50 years were sold as muni’s. on Wall Street. Slowly, We don’t get “enterprise zone tax breaks or abatement’s.

    Very slowly like I never realized how hairy i have actually gotten we got used to poor services, layoffs, rampant corruption, rising murder rates (’74 was the banner year with over 750), little kids not only not being educated but becoming collateral damage in personal grudge drive by’s and almost anything else you could name in a derelict plane that finally lost power and went into an unstoppable tailspin. Seriously should I have had to wait for over 3 hours and argue with a 911 supervisor to come and help me recover my brother in laws body from inside his locked home in August?

    Things may get better, move faster, once we shed the debt, but see as a disabled city employee I am on both sides of the case, both creditor and debtor. But once this whole thing is resolved that’s only the numbers on the bottom line. Personally Detroit may become too expensive for me to live in and too expensive to leave.

    Now you on the other hand have a vision, like Peaches here has a vision. I can appreciate that. I respect it but I have lived through too much to be able to share in it. I just came in from having a smoke at 0810 and already there were 4 people at one of the drug houses here having an argument “I’ll get my 9 and be back here bitch.” Probably not but there is always the possibility because this area is pretty lawless.

    See that is what a person coming here needs to know about Detroit, you were fortunate in NW, My guess is you pretty much kept your business your business and did not get into any one else business, You found a peer group away from your neighborhood and felt comfortable enough on the street to walk or ride on them. By your own calendar you arrived here after Detroit citizens had become used to quadruple the states unemployment rate but before Snyder started to cut SNAP benefits.

    Like is said in so many instances–timing is everything. Welcome to Detroit.

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  5. I really appreciate your sharing. Sheliveswithanappletree, you are an absolutely amazing writer and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your creation. Thank you to everyone who has joined in this discussion. It’s been real.

    Posting the craigslist ad was the first action I took towards becoming a part of Detroit. To adding my energies to a city I have felt, thought about, and believed in for the better part of a year. The language I used in the post was a reflection of my persona, conditioned by my psychology, of which, being a native of Hawai’i and a part-way cultural minority in Portland has been instrumental in shaping. The tone I took was light-hearted, yet passionate. I wrote to Portlanders as I know them, with the intention of awakening their interest and passions with the goal of collaborating with like-minded people to create something positive and beautiful.

    What I received in response was not from Portland. It was from Detroit. Read the above responses and that is a great reflection of the energy I’ve received. I’ve been learning a lot, and am so thankful that people have actually taken an interest in this. It indicates, to me, that Detroit is a place of GREAT energy, whether for creation or destruction, and that it is worth my investment (I am speaking not in monetary terms, but use this word as a representation of one’s total capacity for creation).

    The problems that your city faces are, to me, representative of the sum total of all problems that any American city has ever faced. If there is a way to create prosperity for all those who desire it within their own lives, first and foremost (I say this based upon my own notion that any real change for the individual must come from their own impetus), within this city, there is a way to create prosperity almost anywhere else. I would like to add my energies, the sum total of who I am and continue to develop into, to the betterment of this city. Any further questions, comments, or advice would be highly appreciated, as I attempt to make my intent a reality.

    -Manu

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